In Defense of the Mini-Map: Gaming with Spatial Awareness Difficulties

How often do you feel disorientated by a video game? For most people it’s uncommon, and either intentional on the part of the developer or, conversely, an indication of design choices that aren’t quite working.

For me, it’s a consistent problem. I have always struggled with spatial visualisation and similar skills. It extends far beyond games, of course, but the nature of video games means that I’m often confronted with the issue in a multitude of ways.

For example, I love the Legend of Zelda series, but the dungeon crawling is a trial every time. The Water Temple from the N64 version of Ocarina of Time is famously tricky to navigate–imagine every experience being that labyrinthine. An inability to imagine how rooms and floors relate to each other in 3D space, to mentally connect a map to the level in front of me, and the subsequent impossibility of reliably backtracking and re-tracking paths all combine to delay progress.

Get swept back to the beginning of the Great Bay Temple in Majora’s Mask? It’s not too much of an issue–as long as you can figure out how to get back to where you need to be. That’s easier said than done, for me. Plus, it’s even trickier with the new layered designs put into the 3DS Zelda games, whether or not the 3D is even on. Accordingly, my progress through Link Between Worlds has been positively glacial.

When I step out of a store in real life, I’m approaching the street from a different angle from the way I was previously walking. That means that it takes me a moment to figure out if I’m supposed to be turning left or right out of the door–and a disproportionate amount of the time I get it wrong anyway. Translate this into an open-world game, and navigating even the smallest proportion of its area can become an issue, let alone finding a way across the entirety of the game’s space. And it’s not just open-world games. I’m currently on a long break from DOOM (2016) because having spent twenty minutes getting lost and turned around between objectives, I died and respawned back at the beginning of that unintentional maze and couldn’t face starting it over–especially since it was right after umpteen attempts at a fairly standard platforming section: judging jump distances is another no-no.

Game maps can be of some help, but it depends on their design. In Firewatch, I took a friend’s advice and switched off the “You Are Here” marker on the in-game map, completing the feeling that protagonist Henry was using a physical piece of paper to navigate rather than a digital and interactive representation. It was fantastic for atmosphere and gameplay; wandering the Shoshone National Park for no particular reason other than to talk to your companion Delilah via the walkie-talkie is a wonderful feeling.

But progressing to an actual area necessary for the story became almost an impossibility; functionally I ended up stumbling into many of them purely by accident. The game took me more than double the average time to complete.

It’s not that I don’t know how to read a map–I do. I love cartography, both in games and in real life. Theoretically, I can understand what they’re telling me, but imposing that over the actual structure of the level (or real life equivalent) draws one big blank. It’s like understanding a language when it’s spoken to you, but not being able to speak it well in return.

There are, of course, games that rely entirely on this kind of skill that become entirely unplayable, at least in the way that they’re intended to be played. I’m a huge fan of the Professor Layton series, but there’s a subset of puzzles that require either brute force or just looking up the answer to progress–like “if an unfolded cube looks like this, which side of the assembled shape has this symbol on?” or “which of these silhouettes isn’t a possible rotation of the below 3D diagram?

To give another example, Monument Valley is a gorgeous and evocative game that I had to deliberately work around every bit of the gameplay to actually experience.

Video games are a spatial medium, and I understand that this is an issue that I am always going to run into, and can somewhat mitigate on my own terms (mostly by learning to enjoy being lost, à la Firewatch!). But there are measures that games already take to give a helping hand.

I understand how minimap makers and direct lines drawn on the ground tracing the path towards objectives can be immersion breaking and disincentivise exploration–but for me they’re vital. By all means make them optional (I understand why you would want to turn them off, again thanks to Firewatch) but they’re also more necessary than many people realise.

There are also additional concessions that could be taken into account. Travelling through DOOM’s world is not supposed to be the challenging part of the game; holding back hoards of demons is. Yet the former has been the only thing I’ve personally struggled with. A few more checkpoints at the beginning, rather than the end, of fights, would have meant that I at least didn’t have to repeat the painful traversal sections–I could have focused on the chaotic entertainment that everyone else gets to focus on automatically.

These “hand-holding” aspects of games might be irritating to some, or even feel infantilising to those who don’t need those features. By all means, their implementation should be critiqued where it affects the experience of the game.

But, at their core, their existence is vital for someone. My case is only one example–for every feature that seems an oversimplification to one person, there is another person who requires that help to be able to play at all. Therefore, being considerate of a wide array of needs empowers players to overcome their difficulties and more fully enjoy their experience.

Jay Castello
Jay is a freelance writer who specialises in cultural examinations of video games. You can find her on Twitter @jayplaysthings.
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Jay Castello
Jay is a freelance writer who specialises in cultural examinations of video games. You can find her on Twitter @jayplaysthings.

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